“Down the stretch” is originally a horse racing term that was adopted by every other sport, because on the whole, athletics is a place for cliches not creativity. The “stretch run” is supposed to be the most exciting part of the race, when horses make the final turn and jostle for position while everyone in the stands can clearly tell who’s in first. But once in awhile, some thoroughbreds just have bigger d***s than the others and blow out the competition.
That’s what makes horses fast, right? A big ol’ piece? I mean, that’s what I look for at the track, and it doesn’t not work…
Shut up! You’re the weird one.
Anyways, the topic that terrible intro is obviously framing is the NHL playoff drive. I had to try to get creative because hockey’s stretch run provides little entertainment of its own; 12 of the horses were put down at the quarter-mile mark and the race is all but decided.
With about 10 games remaining for each team, 15 of 16 playoff spots are realistically filled, with only the second Wild Card in the Eastern Conference up for grabs.
Sure, there’s jockeying for position at the top, but thanks to the NHL’s playoff format, there’s not a big difference between win, place, and show. In fact, the Rangers are fourth in the Metropolitan Division and will draw an objectively easier first-round matchup than the teams that finish second and third in the Metro. The race for seeding may witness just as many teams ease up as go full bore.
So if the playoff race is drama-free, why am I even talking about the NHL? Well, there is a very interesting race taking place in hockey right now, but it’s for individual accolades, not team success. The quest for the league’s scoring title is a four-horse race, while the one for MVP has even more contenders. Who will prevail in the quest for biggest awards in the NHL? Let’s dive into the debate.
(And to answer your question: no, I didn’t need that long preamble about horses to tell you I was giving predictions for NHL awards. But I just watched Seabiscuit again last night and I had equine on the brain. On a related note, is Tobey Maguire still cool? He used to be so cool.)
As of this writing, Connor McDavid has a four-point lead over Sid (no longer) the Kid, and one fewer game remaining. But the reason to back the veteran is simple math: Crosby averages the most points per game in the league. After missing the first six games of the year with concussion symptoms, the reigning playoff MVP picked up where he left off last season.
Brad Marchand, Patrick Kane, and McDavid are all capable of closing strong, but the Penguins, as a team, have the most to play for, chasing the no. 1 seed and the President’s Trophy. So I’ll take a motivated Crosby who has won the award twice before.
There’s an interesting debate raging in hockey as to who will join Crosby and McDavid as the third nominee for the award: Brad Marchand, Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson, Nikita Kucherov, Patrick Kane, Sergei Bobrovsky, the list goes on. But ultimately it doesn’t matter; this will be a race between Crosby and Crosby Junior.
A lot of voters will want to draw comparisons between the two, since McDavid is in his second season, the time when Crosby won his first Hart Trophy. But if they’re going to finish around the same in points, you have to look at the intangibles in order to decide who wins this year’s MVP. That’s where Crosby separates.
For one, Crosby is having his worst season ever in the faceoff circle — winning just 48.5-percent of draws — and even then he still blows the doors off McDavid. Sid’s got the better Corsi and Fenwick for those advanced stats nerds and his team is also in pursuit of the best record in hockey. Also, not for nothing, the Penguins are on NBC like every week: a lot of American hockey writers only got to see McDavid come through town once or twice this year.
The biggest argument in favor of McDavid is that the Oilers are a garbage team without him, making him by definition the “most valuable.” While that’s a strong argument, you have to give Cam Talbot a fair shake too. The Oilers jumped from 27th in goals against average to ninth thanks to their goalie’s bounce-back year.
The Penguins get average goaltending, but it doesn’t matter, because they boast the league’s top offense by a wide margin. Crosby and company’s skill in the offensive zone is a big reason this team was still able to win games while Marc-Andre Fleury was flopping around like an amateur break dancer with an inner-ear infection.
Remember last year when Karlsson lost the Norris despite leading all defenseman in scoring because his game wasn’t as “two-way” as Drew Doughty’s? (In actuality, it was because his game was two-trophied, while Doughty had none.) This year’s favorite is another defenseman who has yet to win the honor, but this time, he is conveniently leading all D in scoring.
Brent Burns has had an amazing season, don’t get me wrong. But giving him the award violates all the BS reasons Karlsson didn’t win last year. He’s not great in his own end, with his partner Marc-Edouard Vlasic often covering for him. Karlsson is better than Burns in nearly every stat that measures defensive performance: he leads the league in blocked shots, averages nearly two more minutes of ice time per game, has laid out just as many hits, and has more takeaways and fewer giveaways. He’s also catching up in the points race pretty fast (66 to Burns’ 70).
The hockey writers could still end up giving this to first-timer Burns, but that would mean they aren’t really sticking to any blueprint for picking the best defenseman, and are just making up rules as they go along. And that’s just not possible: what self-respecting hockey columnist would ever make something up?
I thought Devan Dubnyk was a shoo-in to win his first Vezina this season, but turn your head and all of a sudden, the guy goes on a five-game losing streak posting a GAA of over four. That’s another factor I didn’t mention on these other awards: finishing strong is way more important than starting strong. Apparently voters have a tough time harkening back to October, so a strong close can really boost a candidate past his competition.
Bobrovsky currently leads the three major goaltending categories, and he’s on a seven-game win streak at the right time.
Not a single person cares about this award. Especially in Canada. So I’m just going to look at whichever rookie has the most points. On this particular day, that’s Laine. Congratulations, Winnipeg! You finally won something.[Editor’s note: Yes they do. But Walter’s right. There’s not much to separate Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine, so it’s going to the guy with the most points. ]
Photo Credit: Michael Miller (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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